Most of Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on immigration delivered in Hampshire on 14 April was a detailed exposition of how the coalition was succeeding in coming to grips with the ‘problem’ of ‘too high a level of immigration’ into the UK. But the speech will almost certainly only be remembered for this passage (and other hints, innuendoes and asides like it):
when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
Yes, he did speak about the positive benefits of immigration, but, as so many politicians do, proceeded to dilute and supersede that message with various familiar arguments designed to play on people’s fears that there is an alien presence in our midst. And by making the focus of of his speech the measures the government is taking to control immigration, immigrants and their children are framed as a ‘problem’ to be dealt with. (His speech in Munich back in February, when he attacked multiculturalism, had the same flavour. See my post on the speech.)
Why he chooses to do this is depressingly obvious. Restive backwoodsmen on the right of his party are increasingly angry about what the Tories are sacrificing by being in coalition with the Lib-Dems and ready to explode if the ‘nos’ lose the AV referendum. Cameron fears losing votes to UKIP in the forthcoming local elections and is also worried that if the Tories don’t show that they are out in front keeping foreigners out, the British National Party will benefit. Throwing the immigration bone to the snarling Tory right is a classic tactical manoeuvre.
Wouldn’t it be a pleasant surprise to hear someone who claims to be a modernising Tory leader make an unashamedly positive speech about immigration? Pigs will fly. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for David Cameron to take flight or see the light. All we needed to do was to read Mehdi Hasan, Senior Editor at the New Statesman, writing in the Guardian on 16 April, powerfully setting out argument after argument, fact after fact, as to why immigration has been, and continues to be, good for the country. Immigration boosts the economy and wages and has transformed the high street by reinvigorating the country’s entrepreneurial culture. Two of our political parties are headed by sons of immigrants – Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – and Cameron’s great-great-grandfather, a German-Jewish financier, came to this country as a migrant in the 1850s. Even the royal family has German origins. ‘Without foreign workers, the NHS would grind to a halt’, Hasan writes, and ‘without foreign-born students our universities would go bust’.
Cameron was also deeply disingenuous. He insists that immigrants must learn English – who doesn’t think that this is very important? – and yet the government has cut funds it provided for English teaching. He blames immigration and ethnicity for the lack of social cohesion, but recent research has shown that the main cause is the level of economic deprivation. He makes out that immigration is the big question that no one will talk about and everyone worries about. Yet the latest Ipsos MORI issues index, a poll which has been asked in the same form for more than three decades, shows that concern about ‘race relations/immigration’ has dropped to a 9-year low. It’s now in 6th place when people are asked what to them is the most important issue facing Britain today.
It’s very widely accepted that there have to be restrictions on immigration, but there is no reason why they cannot be devised and explained within an unashamedly welcoming context. The situation we are now in, where there seems to be some consensus around the notion that ‘good immigration’ is people who come to here with skills the country needs and ‘bad immigration’ is large numbers of economic migrants seeking to better themselves who don’t have these ‘skills’, shows just how far the centre of gravity of the debate has shifted to an utterly unrealistic conception of what migration is all about. A huge proportion of immigrants and their descendants who have achieved social, educational and financial success came virtually penniless and without any immediately marketable skills. The idea that we cannot make space for such people today is a sad reflection on the society we seem to have become – or at least the society that our political leaders claim that we have become.
When my paternal Ukrainian-Jewish grandfather came to England with his wife in 1901 in his very early 20s, he was very poor and his self-designation as ‘cabinet-maker’ merely disguised the fact that he had no training in any trade. At the time of his death in 1944, he hardly spoke any English. For many years my father was bilingual and after the Second World War he learnt to be a tailor and cutter. Like my two brothers, I was brought up monolingual. I’ve had a successful career in the third sector, my older brother is a professor of maths education and my younger brother is an accountant. The instinct to better yourself, provide your children with the opportunities to succeed in life and become part of the society in which you have chosen to live remains very strong, no matter where you come from. What we need is an immigration policy based around the understanding that the vast majority of people who want to come to live in the UK share such aspirations.